6 Charming Small Towns to Visit on Florida’s Gulf Coast
With a population of over 22 million, Florida is the third most populous state in the union. And, it continues to grow as people continue to move to the Sunshine State. Maybe it’s because of all the beautiful beaches, the warm weather, or the cultural and outdoor activities. Either way, you don’t have to live in Florida to enjoy all it has to offer.
When it comes to visiting Florida, I’ve found that people fall into two camps: those who prefer the Atlantic coast and those who love the Gulf. I say both coasts have their advantages and you can’t go wrong with either one. This time we visited small towns on the gulf side and here are some of our favorites!
I have been hosted in some of these places. All opinions are mine.
1. Boat key
Located about a 25-minute drive from Sarasota, the town of Longboat Key was established in 1955 and is part of the Bradenton-Sarasota metropolitan area. With over 10 miles of white sand beaches, Longboat Key is known as a luxury resort community offering golf, fine dining, upscale shopping and luxury resorts for vacationers.
Shopping on the Rowboat Key
Just over the Longboat Key bridge, you’ll find St. Armands Circle, an outdoor area
developed by circus magnate John Ringling in the early 1900s. The area offers shopping and outdoor dining in a charming tropical atmosphere. Here you’ll find shops and restaurants amid lush courtyards and patios dotted with historic statues.
Stay at Zota Beach Resort
The perfect place to stay in Longboat Key, Zota Beach Resort boasts a prime gulf front location and private beach. There’s so much to love about Zota. First, it provides a peaceful night’s sleep. I heard no noise, and thanks to the amazing blackout curtains, our room remained dark. It was possibly the darkest hotel room ever – without any distracting LED lights.
The modern resort offers luxury in a relaxed setting with the convenience of an on-site full-service restaurant – the Viento Kitchen + Bar. Zota offers in-room amenities like single-cup coffee makers, ultra-plush bathrobes, spa bath products, free Wi-Fi, and stunning gulf views from your private balcony.
Outside your room you will find all the amenities you would expect from an upscale waterfront resort. Dive into the extraordinary infinity pool. Grab a cocktail from the poolside bar and sit on one of the many sun loungers on the expansive poolside terrace. Relax in your private cabana, equipped with a mini-fridge and TV. Or head out the back door straight to the sand and explore the beach.
Pro tip: At night, the place to be is on the private beach directly behind Zota. Grab a cool drink and claim a spot on the beach around 30 minutes before sunset and prepare to be dazzled as the sun slips past the horizon.
2. Crystal River
This small Florida Gulf town of about 3,100 is located about an hour and a half north of Tampa. With its location in the middle of Florida’s Nature Coast, it’s no wonder Crystal River is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. It’s also one of the few places in the world where you can legally swim with manatees. You can see manatees and many other native Florida animals at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park in nearby Homosassa, just down the road from Crystal River. This is old Florida at its best with plenty of outdoor fun to enjoy.
Vintage The 5
A culinary centerpiece in Crystal River for over 10 years, Vintage on 5th specializes in fresh seafood and traditional southern dishes. Located in the historic part of town in a former church, the vibe here is upscale yet cozy. A glass of wine is definitely in order here as Vintage on 5th offers over 25 wines by the glass and over 100 selections by the bottle.
They are known for their award-winning fine wines, including the Daou Paso Robles Chardonnay that I selected. The eclectic dinner menu offers something for everyone with an emphasis on quality and creativity. The fresh cut gulf grouper is outstanding, as well as the fabulously creamy smoked gouda grits. I’m not even a fan of grains normally, but I would have them every day of the week if I could!
Tea house 650
Tea House 650 has built its reputation on tea. Today, it offers a wide variety of teas and an extensive lunch menu. My panini—full of mesquite smoked turkey, Vermont white cheddar cheese with sweet honey-jalapeno mustard, rosemary, and mayonnaise—was the perfect light lunch before our afternoon kayaking adventure. While you’re here, try the strawberry smoothie. It’s a delicious way to cool off on a hot day and you can absolutely taste the homemade goodness. In fact, everything here is made from scratch. Tea House 650 is the perfect lunch spot in downtown Crystal River.
Located about an hour north of Tampa, Inverness – a small city of around 7,000 people – is known to be a prime area for outdoor activities. With the 46-mile Withlacoochee Trail running through the town, Inverness is super bike-friendly. Check out Select ebike to rent or buy super fun e-bikes right off the trail.
Breakfast at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters
This downtown spot was hopping on a recent Saturday morning where families and cyclists stopped for a cup of coffee and homemade treats like muffins, scones and bagels. Coffee lovers will love Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters for their wide selection of coffee beans and bagged coffees. A chocolate biscotti was the perfect accompaniment to my vanilla latte. My hubby, a dark roast lover, gives the Midnight Express a big thumbs up. Next time I will try a sandwich from their extensive lunch menu.
4. Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island
Head north on Longboat Key and cross the bridge to scenic Anna Maria Island. Here, you’ll find three distinct towns on the island, all with a laid-back, seaside vibe with golf carts on the roads.
Directly across the bridge is the town of Bradenton Beach, in the center of the island is Holmes Beach, and the town of Anna Maria occupies the northern tip of the island.
On the island you will find wonderful beaches and parks as well as many restaurants and many colorful chalets and beach rentals. A big part of the charm of the island is that there are no skyscrapers. City statues are in place to keep the buildings to a maximum of 3 stories so you have the perfect unobstructed view of the gulf.
Pro tip: Anna Maria Island has a free trolley service that runs daily with frequent stops along the island. Sit back and enjoy the cool, air-conditioned ride to the beach, or perhaps to historic Bridge Street for a casual lunch at one of the local restaurants.
Known as the shark tooth capital of the world, Venice, Florida is a community of approximately 26,000 people. Located just south of Sarasota, Venice is known for its historic downtown, beautiful golf courses and, of course, miles of sandy beaches, including the famous Venice Beach.
6. Cape Coral
Although not a small town like the others on this list, Cape Coral manages to retain a small town feel despite being the largest city between Tampa and Miami in terms of population and area. And, with over 400 miles of canals, Cape Coral has more canals than Venice, Italy.
Stay at the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village
The Westin Cape Coral Resort manages to maintain a small-town feel with its cozy apartment-style suites with waterfront views of the Gulf of Mexico, Caloosahatchee River, and San Carlos Bay. The spacious pet-friendly units, all designed like condos, are decorated with an understated elegance that emphasizes comfort, modernity, and clean lines. Equipped with a full kitchen, ceiling fans, washer and dryer, our one bedroom unit had everything we could possibly need, including a great view of the Caloosahatchee River from our private balcony. .
For extended families, the Mariner Suites have two master bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a whopping 2,100 square feet of space to enjoy. On the top floor of the property offering incredible space and views, the bi-level Admiral Suite is true luxury living.
Here you can spend time enjoying the Florida climate with a wide assortment of outdoor recreation options. Enjoy three outdoor pools, free bicycles, table tennis and lawn corn hole, multiple golf courses, tennis courts, bocce, horseshoes and trails pedestrians. With an on-site marina, boat rentals and charters right outside your door, you’ll find plenty to keep you and your family occupied. Stroll through the shops on the adjacent boardwalk, watch the boats come and go in the marina, or enjoy a dolphin cruise at sunset. With an on-site restaurant and dockside bar, you can enjoy the convenience of dining at the Westin – no need to drive!
Whatever you choose, you’ll find The Westin is the perfect place to relax in luxurious surroundings with all the amenities you’ve come to expect. This timeless property offers upscale accommodation in an elegant and comfortable atmosphere that will appeal to families and business travelers alike.
Pro Tip: The resort offers free daily boat rides to and from Fort. Myers Beach. Spend a few hours on the sand, then stop at Snug Harbor Waterfront Restaurant for a delicious alfresco lunch before hopping on the boat for the return trip to Westin Cape Coral.